The gods of comedy surely were feeling beneficent when they arranged for a politician named Weiner to be caught in a scandal kicked off by his accidentally public tweet of a photo of his penis that was meant to be privately DM’d to a fangirl. The career trajectory of John Oliver alone confirms this: he transformed a 2013 summer fill-in hosting job on The Daily Show, one that was initially greeted with trepidation by Jon Stewart’s fans (including this one), into his own show, now an HBO and viral-video hit… and that is down to (among other clever bits) his appropriation of Weiner’s nom de sexting, Carlos Danger — yes, really *facepalm* — for comedic purposes… comedic purposes that slayed.
I do almost feel sorry for Anthony Weiner, congressman from New York who resigned in disgrace in 2011, candidate for New York City mayor in 2013 whose campaign was derailed by yet further sexting revelations. I say “almost” because, as this essential documentary from first-time feature filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg shows, Anthony Weiner, fiery Democrat from Brooklyn, has very obviously no one but himself to blame for his downfall. Herein is a hugely watchable — like how a trainwreck is watchable — cautionary tale of Shakespearean proportions about the shark-infested waters of 21st-century politics, the always-on fame machine that is the Internet, moral and ethical questions about precisely what constitutes marital infidelity, and so much more. It’s so beautifully, nastily perfect a tale, in its ironies and twists, that you’d be forgiven for presuming it had to be invented.
Kriegman and Steinberg follow Weiner during an early phase of the 2013 run for NYC mayor, when Weiner was, two years after he left Congress, vying for the nomination of the Democratic party. And it looks to be going great for Weiner, a proudly angry advocate for the poor and working class. He’s charismatic, he’s appealingly outraged about things that ordinary people worry about, and he’s enthusiastic: the fervor with which he throws himself into New York’s array of ethnic parades and celebrations that summer is amusingly contrasted by the filmmakers with the perfunctory joylessness of Weiner’s opponents as they make similar, and far less successful, attempts to pander.
Yet through it all we begin to wonder whether there isn’t something rotten driving Weiner; the suspicion rises like a stench from vermin that died in the walls. Could it be a base narcissism that is motivating the politician? He seems truly to believe his power-to-the-people message — and he’s certainly no rich fat cat looking to get even richer through supposedly public service; a “thousandaire,” he calls himself — yet it does seem that a desire to be at the center of attention trumps whatever good intentions he tells himself are his cause. We talk about “errors of judgment” that call into question the fitness of would-be leaders to lead, and perhaps this has never been more apropos. Weiner broke no laws, and as he himself argues in his defense, he never even met the women — he admits to up to a dozen of them, so there are likely many more — with whom he exchanged sexually explicit text messages and photos, so whether that constitutes infidelity is a gray area, and surely up to him and wife to determine, and to get past. (The relationship between Weiner and his wife — longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Adebin, now vice chair of Clinton’s presidential campaign — could well have been the subject of an entire film on its own, and is entirely riveting in the glimpses we get here.) Yes, even politicians deserve a private life, and no, we cannot limit public office only to those who are squeaky clean, but still… What does it say about a man who cannot hold himself in check, when he must certainly have known that his indiscretions would become public? What does it say about his priorities as a politician if he was okay with jeopardizing the needs of his constituents because he could quite literally not keep his dick in his pants when DC fangirls came a’callin’ on the Internet? What does it say about his priorities if he lets his anger get the better of him, as it does on an appearance on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC news show, an extraordinary piece of what can only be called reality television? The suggestion is floated that it was nothing but pure narcissism that prompted Weiner to give his approval to be filmed during a campaign that he had to at least suspect was going to end in disaster.
And yet, on the other hand, does it matter if a politician is driven by narcissism to high political office if he nevertheless uses that office to do real good for real people who are so often neglected by our leaders? That might be the haunting aftereffect of Weiner — a festival favorite and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance — that lingers. Could Weiner’s self-centeredness and hot-temperedness have worked to the benefit of his constituents if we weren’t so childish about all things sexual? We’ll never know now.